Friday, November 20, 2020

Kanika Niti - Mahabharata

Lessons From The Mahabharata: Kanika Niti – The Dead Inspire No Fear

The Shanti and Anushasan Parvas of the Mahabharata dwell at length on statecraft and the duties of a king as a ruler in normal times (Raj-dharma), in times of distress (Apad-dharma), and so on (Dana-dharma, Moksha-dharma). There are other mini treatises on statecraft to be found in the text, Vidura Niti being one notable example (contained entirely in Prajagara Parva, within Udyoga Parva). Another popular one is Kanika Niti, but which has been excised from the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. It is nonetheless a notable exposition that deserves to be retold.
Dhritarashtra frets. Mahabharata, Special Issue, Vol. 3, Amar Chitra Katha 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Vidura Niti - 10 - Forgiveness, conduct, and the end

common refrain of Dhritarashtra was to bemoan the vicissitudes of fate, the meaningless of karma, and the supremacy of destiny. It was perhaps his way of not taking responsibility for his actions. In some ways, he was the antithesis of Krishna, who was the ultimate karmayogi. The seventh chapter of Vidura Niti begins in a similar vein. Dhritarashtra says, "Man is not the master of his destiny. He is like a wooden puppet dangling from a string. The creator has made him subject to destiny." While Dhritarashtra seemed to be coming round to accepting Vidura's views, the love for his sons was irreconcilable, in his opinion, with doing what was right for the Pandavas.

धृतराष्ट्र उवाच
सर्वं त्वमायतीयुक्तं भाषसे प्राज्ञसंमतम्
न चोत्सहे सुतं त्यक्तुं यतो धर्मस्ततो जयः [5.39.7]
'Dhritarashtra said, "All that you have said has been approved of by the wise and is for my welfare. But I cannot abandon my son. Where there is dharma, there is victory."

He says much the same thing towards the end of Vidura Niti - "My inclination has always been to turn towards the Pandavas. But whenever I meet Duryodhana, it turns in a contrary direction. No mortal one is capable of transgressing destiny. I think that destiny is the one who acts and human endeavour is futile."

Vidura has a solution for this dilemma also. He suggests to the king that he "Give them a few villages so that they can sustain themselves. ... Your sons will be protected through this deed." This is also the message that Krishna delivers to the king at Hastinapur (Bhagvata Yana parva). Duryodhana had committed an evil act earlier, and it was incumbent on the king to rectify it now. Vidura advised the king that quarrels with relatives were ill-advised. He said:
ज्ञातयस्तारयन्तीह ज्ञातयो मज्जयन्ति च
सुवृत्तास्तारयन्तीह दुर्वृत्ता मज्जयन्ति च [5.39.23]
"In this world, relatives rescue and relatives make one sink. Those who follow good conduct, rescue. Those who follow evil conduct, make one sink."

Vidura's words on humility and good conduct are well worth reproducing:
अवृत्तिं विनयो हन्ति हन्त्यनर्थं पराक्रमः
हन्ति नित्यं क्षमा क्रोधमाचारो हन्त्यलक्षणम् [5.39.32]
"Humility destroys bad conduct. Valour destroys adverse circumstances. Forgiveness always destroys anger. Good conduct destroys evil omens."

After the Pandavas were exiled, Yudhishthira had told Draupadi the greatness of forgiveness, that "Forgiveness is dharma. Forgiveness is sacrifices. Forgiveness is the Vedas. Forgiveness is the sacred texts," and so on. The shlokas start off as: क्षमा धर्मः क्षमा यज्ञः क्षमा वेदाः क्षमा श्रुतम् [3.3.36a]. Here Vidura adds exquisite nuance to the concept of forgiveness: 

क्षमेदशक्तः सर्वस्य शक्तिमान्धर्मकारणात् [5.39.46a]
"A weak person must forgive everything. A strong person must do that for the sake of dharma."

Of course, the situation was different when Yudhishthira spoke the words, uttered more out of compulsion and a recognition of the predicament facing the Pandavas at the time, so it is important to place those words, and any other from the Mahabharata, in their appropriate context to gain a true appreciation of their import.

This chapter ends with more advice from Vidura on what one should sorrow over, what causes aging, what is the cause of diminishing, and more.
  • अक्रोधेन जयेत्क्रोधमसाधुं साधुना जयेत्
  • जयेत्कदर्यं दानेन जयेत्सत्येन चानृतम् [5.39.58]
  • "Anger should be conquered with lack of anger.
  • Wickedness should be conquered with goodness.
  • Miserliness should be conquered with generosity.
  • Falsehood should be conquered with truth."

  • अविद्यः पुरुषः शोच्यः शोच्यं मिथुनमप्रजम्
  • निराहाराः प्रजाः शोच्याः शोच्यं राष्ट्रमराजकम् [5.39.62]
  • "One should sorrow over a man who is without learning. 
  • One should sorrow over a couple that has no offspring. 
  • One should sorrow over subjects who are hungry. 
  • One should sorrow over a kingdom that has no king."

  • अध्वा जरा देहवतां पर्वतानां जलं जरा
  • असंभोगो जरा स्त्रीणां वाक्शल्यं मनसो जरा [5.39.63]
  • "Those who have bodies age through travels. 
  • Mountains age through rain. 
  • The lack of intercourse ages women. 
  • Harsh words age the mind."

  • अनाम्नायमला वेदा ब्राह्मणस्याव्रतं मलम्
  • कौतूहलमला साध्वी विप्रवासमलाः स्त्रियः [5.39.64]
  • "The Vedas are tarnished if they are not recounted. 
  • Brahmanas are tarnished from lack of vows. 
  • Curiosity tarnishes chaste women. 
  • Banishment from home tarnishes women. 

  • सुवर्णस्य मलं रूप्यं रूप्यस्यापि मलं त्रपु
  • ज्ञेयं त्रपुमलं सीसं सीसस्यापि मलं मलम् [5.39.65]
  • Silver tarnishes gold. 
  • Tin tarnishes silver. 
  • Lead tarnishes tin. 
  • Dust tarnishes lead."

  • न स्वप्नेन जयेन्निद्रां न कामेन स्त्रियं जयेत्
  • नेन्धनेन जयेदग्निं न पानेन सुरां जयेत् [5.39.66]
  • "Do not vanquish sleep with more sleep. 
  • Do not vanquish women through desire. 
  • Do not conquer a fire by kindling it. 
  • Do not conquer thirst through liquor."

In closing, Vidura exhorts Dhritarashtra to give up desire, for "Those who have thousands live. Those who have hundreds also live." (सहस्रिणोऽपि जीवन्ति जीवन्ति शतिनस्तथा - 5.39.68a)

Vidura continues in the next chapter, telling the king that "Hope destroys steadfastness. Death destroys prosperity. Anger destroys riches. Miserliness destroys fame. Failure to tend destroys animals. O king! Even one single angry brahmana destroys a kingdom."
(आशा धृतिं हन्ति समृद्धिमन्तकः; क्रोधः श्रियं हन्ति यशः कदर्यता
अपालनं हन्ति पशूंश्च राज;न्नेकः क्रुद्धो ब्राह्मणो हन्ति राष्ट्रम् - 5.40.7)

Vidura says that the objective of his advising the king was for him to be content and to give up the transient. The body was transient, and only a person's deeds followed him, just as relatives and well-wishers returned after casting a dead person's body into the fire, it was the dead person's deeds that followed him. 

Here, Vidura invokes vivid imagery to present a picture of the soul, deeds, and more, and which is worth reproducing in full: 
आत्मा नदी भारत पुण्यतीर्था; सत्योदका धृतिकूला दमोर्मिः
तस्यां स्नातः पूयते पुण्यकर्मा; पुण्यो ह्यात्मा नित्यमम्भोऽम्भ एव [5.40.19]
The soul is a river. Purity represents its tirthas. Truthfulness is its water. Steadfastness constitutes the banks. Self-control represents the waves. Bathing in these, a performer of pure deeds purifies himself. The soul becomes pure and is like water in the eternal waters. 


कामक्रोधग्राहवतीं पञ्चेन्द्रियजलां नदीम्
कृत्वा धृतिमयीं नावं जन्मदुर्गाणि संतर [5.40.20]
There is a river in which the five senses are the water and desire and anger are the crocodiles. Make a boat out of steadfastness and cross the difficult eddies of repeated birth.

Dhritarashtra began the seventh chapter with a lament about the primacy of destiny. He ends the eighth chapter with another lament - "I think that destiny is the one who acts and human endeavour is futile.

In the last chapter of Vidura Niti, Dhritarashtra asks Vidura whether there was anything he had not yet spoken about. Vidura answered that the sage Sanatsujata was the one who could speak with the king. The sage manifested himself and Vidura requested the sage to clarify the king's doubts.

This ends Prajagara Parva, which contains Vidura Niti.

Note: Translated excerpts from Bibek Debroy’s unabridged, ten-volume, English translation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin from 2010 to 2015. The translations here are from volume 4. The Sanskrit verses are John Smith’s revision of Prof. Muneo Tokunaga’s version of the text, and available online at

This was first published in Indic Today on Sep 18, 2020.

© 2020, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Vidura Niti - 9 - Long arms, trust, and fools

Remember what Vidura said towards the end of the previous chapter, that someone who incites his enemy "cannot presume to be secure, only because he is a long distance away"

Vidura adds to that in this chapter, the sixth, of Vidura Niti. Running away after striking an intelligent person is of no use because "An intelligent person has long arms and when injured, will cause hurt in return." Essentially, shoot and scoot isn't going to cut it with a smart adversary.
अपकृत्वा बुद्धिमतो दूरस्थोऽस्मीति नाश्वसेत्
दीर्घौ बुद्धिमतो बाहू याभ्यां हिंसति हिंसितः [5.38.8]

Friday, September 25, 2020

Vidura Niti - 8 - Messengers, Gluttony, Security, and Help

Vidura likens the Kouravas to the forest and the Pandavas to the tigers that reside in the forest. His injunction to the king is to not cut down the forest with the tigers, for the forest was protected by the tigers and it in turn protected the tigers. A clarion call for environmentalism that's thousands of years old, hiding in plain sight within the words of Vidura, in this fifth chapter from Vidura Niti!

Vidura also likened the Pandavas to wood, for just as the energy of fire was hidden in wood and remained hidden till it was not sparked and kindled through friction, when it burned itself and everything else, the Pandavas were also capable of burning through the energy of their noble birth.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Vidura Niti - 7 - Lineage, Conduct, and Relatives

So far we have covered three chapters of Vidura Niti - 254 of 541 shlokas - or a little less than half of Vidura Niti, which is entirely contained in the Prajagara Parva. In the previous post, Vidura talked of the consequences of lying as a witness using the story of Sudhanva, Virochana, and Prahlada.

In this chapter, Vidura reinforces his point by narrating the history of the conversation between the son of Atri and the Sadhyas to Dhritarashtra. The gods, the Sadhyas, wanted to know from Atreya who he was and to hear from him words of wisdom and dharma. Among the things that Atreya told the Sadhyas, one was on harsh words. Atreya's advice was to not retort to harsh words, for that "torments the one who reviles and you enjoy the fruits of his good deeds."

Atreya said that "one is accordingly coloured by one’s associates" - whether one associated with an ascetic or thief. The allusion to the company Dhritarashtra's son kept cannot be missed here. Enough harsh words had been uttered by Duryodhana in the game of dice, and it is here that Atreya's words are worth noting here. 

"First, it is better not to speak than to speak. Second, if one speaks, one should speak the truth. Third, if one speaks, one should say that which is pleasant. Fourth, if one speaks pleasant truth, it should be in accordance with dharma."
अव्याहृतं व्याहृताच्छ्रेय आहुः; सत्यं वदेद्व्याहृतं तद्द्वितीयम्
प्रियं वदेद्व्याहृतं तत्तृतीयं; धर्म्यं वदेद्व्याहृतं तच्चतुर्थम् [5.36.12]

Remember the verses from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.5) about we being what our "deep, driving desires are"? Vidura Niti echoes the same philosophy, slightly expanding on it - 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Vidura Niti - 6 Bearing false witness and lying for land

Vidura ended the previous chapter by telling the king that Yudhishthira was fit to rule, that he had suffered much on account of his 'compassion and non-violence' and deserved to be king. That was, in essence, his reply to Dhritarashtra's question as to what would be best for Yudhisthira and for the Kurus.

In this chapter – the third in Vidura Niti – Dhritarashtra asks Vidura to share more words of wisdom since he was not satisfied with his advice, full of ‘dharma and artha.’

The questions before Dhritarashtra were whether he was prepared to get into an internecine war over land and whether he would speak the truth or not on the question of whether the Pandavas had successfully completed their thirteen-year period of exile as agreed upon in the second round dice (Anudyuta Parva).

Vidura addressed these unasked questions by recounting the “ancient history of the conversation between Virochana and Sudhanva, over Keshini”. Vidura had alluded to this in the first chapter, but not elaborated. Here, he recounts the story in detail.

Virochana was Prahlada’s son. Prahlada, as we know, was the son of the asura king Hiranyakashyipu. There was a svayamvara held for Keshini, where both Virochana and Sudhanva, a brahmana, arrived. Keshini posed a question to Virochana – who was superior, Sudhanva the brahmana, or Virochana?

Virochana offered Sudhanva a seat along with him, under the assumption that Sudhanva was at best his equal, nothing more. Sudhanva, however, refused as accepting would mean he would descend to the level of Virochana, which was unacceptable.

Both disagreed as to who deserved a higher seat, and both put up stakes on the answer. Who would decide, and decide honestly? First, Sudhanva put up their lives as stakes, and second, as to who would decide without telling a lie, both agreed to Sudhanva’s suggestion to go Prahlada, Virochana’s father.

Before Prahlada answered their question, he posed a question of his own to Sudhanva – ‘Where does the false witness, who neither speaks the truth nor lies, spend the night?’ Sudhanva answered the question in two parts. First, he replied to Prahlada’s direct question:
“A false witness spends the night like a woman ignored” (Bibek Debroy’s footnote tells us this refers to the situation where the husband is with another woman)
“like one who has been defeated in gambling”
“or like one whose limbs are exhausted from carrying a load.”
“A false witness spends the night like someone who is debarred from the city and remains hungry outside the gates, where he always sees many enemies.”

यां रात्रिमधिविन्ना स्त्री यां चैवाक्षपराजितः
यां च भाराभितप्ताङ्गो दुर्विवक्ता स्म तां वसेत् [5.35.24]

नगरे प्रतिरुद्धः सन्बहिर्द्वारे बुभुक्षितः
अमित्रान्भूयसः पश्यन्दुर्विवक्ता स्म तां वसेत् [5.35.25]

Second, he elaborated by describing what a lie was like, depending on who the lie was spoken for:
A lie for the sake of an animal implies that five are killed.”
“A lie for the sake of a cow implies that ten are killed.”
“A lie for the sake of a horse implies that one hundred are killed.”
“A lie for the sake of a man implies that one thousand are killed.”
“A lie for the sake of gold implies that those who have been born, and those who are yet to be born, are killed.”
“A lie for the sake of land implies that everything is killed.”

पञ्च पश्वनृते हन्ति दश हन्ति गवानृते
शतमश्वानृते हन्ति सहस्रं पुरुषानृते [5.35.26]

हन्ति जातानजातांश्च हिरण्यार्थेऽनृतं वदन्
सर्वं भूम्यनृते हन्ति मा स्म भूम्यनृतं वदीः [5.35.27]

An interesting point is that the value of a cow, in this answer, is deemed lower than a horse’s. The second point should be obvious to all – the whole dispute between the Pandavas and Kouravas centered around the land – whether Yudhishthira was to be given his kingdom back, now that the exile of thirteen years had ended.

If the period had ended without the Pandavas being discovered in the thirteenth year, then there was no option for the king but to return their kingdom to them, as per the conditions of the bet laid down in the second round of gambling (Anudyuta Parva).

The only way this would not happen was if the king uttered a lie, which is what Vidura warned against – “Therefore, you should not utter a falsehood for the sake of the land. By deviating for the sake of your son, do not head towards destruction with your sons and your advisers.”

On the question of lying, or bearing false witness, Vidura enumerated the seven kinds of people who should not be called as witnesses:
  1. A palmist
  2. A trader who has been a thief earlier
  3. A skilled fowler
  4. A physician
  5. An enemy
  6. Friend
  7. Actor
I can only wonder about some on this list, but moving on, Vidura tells Dhritarashtra that "Old age destroys beauty, hope destroys steadfastness, death destroys life, jealousy destroys dharma, anger destroys prosperity, association with the ignoble destroys conduct, lust destroys modesty and vanity destroys everything."

Friday, September 4, 2020

Vidura Niti - 5

The first chapter of Vidura Niti ended with Vidura advising Dhritarashtra to do the right thing and hand over the Pandava's "rightful kingdom" to them. The king, as we know, did not take that advice. He was, however, tormented by Sanjay's harsh words before he had departed for the night. Sleep would not come. Dhritarashtra wanted to know what should a person suffering from sleeplessness do, and also what the suggested course of action that would be best for both Ajatshatru (Yudhishthira) as well as the Kurus (i.e., the Kauravs in this context, since both the Pandavas and Kauravas were Kurus). In this chapter, Vidura talks about deeds, consequences, of the five senses, and ends with an oblique answer to the king.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Long lives - Tales from the Mahabharata

Some of the characters in the Mahabharata lived long lives. Even Arjuna was about to become a grandfather when the great battle was fought in Kurukshetra. Bhishma his grandfather's age. Remember that Devavrata had been a young lad when he took the terrible vow that allowed his father to marry Satyavati. Satyavati's grandsons were Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura. So Bhishma was even older than Arjuna's grandfather would have been!

Dronacharya loved his son, Aswhatthama, too much. That love drove many decisions Drona took in life. Ashwatthama, on the other hand, loved his own life too much. That much we know because Bhishma says as much on the eve of the war. "He loves his own life too much. This brahmana always wishes for a long life. [Ch 164, Udyoga Parva]", and after the war, Ashwatthama confesses, "I was scared of saving my life. I released the weapon out of fear. I was scared of Bhimasena.[Ch 15, Aishika Parva]"